Profile John OBrien London eye

10 May 07
The new chief executive of London Councils will be watching out not only for his members but for the capital's less affluent citizens, too, he tells Vivienne Russell

11 May 2007

The new chief executive of London Councils will be watching out not only for his members but for the capital's less affluent citizens, too, he tells Vivienne Russell

John O'Brien is not quite a Londoner. An Essex boy, he was born too far away from the sound of Bow bells to qualify as a cockney, but he has, he declares, a great affection for the city and its dynamism.

Just as well, given his new role as chief executive of London Councils, the membership body for the capital's 33 boroughs. Four days into the job, O'Brien is already beginning to feel his way through some of the challenges posed by marshalling local government across the capital.

London is a city of extremes. While a third of residents are educated to degree level, another third lack five good GCSEs. A man living in the most affluent borough will live, on average, seven years longer than a man living in the poorest.

More than half the children in inner London live in poverty yet the city boasts five professional symphony orchestras and 40 Michelin-star-rated restaurants, and each day raises the curtain on more than 100 theatrical performances.

'One of the most interesting challenges in London is how do you, on the one hand, sustain all the advantages that come from being a great, dynamic global city – and London's contribution to the economic health of country is massive – but then make sure the benefits of that are felt more broadly across London?' he asks. 'Anyone who's involved in public service will find [London] a fascinating challenge, and in that challenge local councils, London boroughs, are as important as anybody.'

With a new identity – the old Association of London Government was rebranded London Councils back in October – and local government in a period of flux, it is a good time to take over.

We meet just south of the river, at London Councils' Southwark headquarters, close to the Tate Modern gallery and popular Borough food market, signs of affluent London's enterprise and energy.

There is much to be done to consolidate previous achievements and ensure London Councils continues lobbying effectively for the boroughs and providing relevant and good-value services, O'Brien says.

But he adds that he wants to develop the boroughs' role as community leaders, engaging with other partners, whether they are primary care trusts or Safer Neighbourhoods teams.

'That's an example of where this organisation should be able to help lead the debate, push the debate a bit further,' he says. 'One never needs to be complacent about this, but London local government has got a really good platform to build on in terms of basic performance.'

He is already making a good impression. London Councils insiders praise O'Brien's people skills, openness and lack of pretension, saying he's exactly what the organisation needs right now.

'John knows people's names already,' says one. 'He's accessible, a nice guy.'

With the organisation passing last year from Labour to Conservative control, O'Brien has his work cut out in keeping all boroughs on side as well as ensuring the body is up to the job. 'All the indications are he will do that in a very good way,' the insider says. 'He's very keen and already had a couple of staff meetings; there is a real sense of engagement.'

O'Brien recently worked with Lord Best on his review of the Local Government Association's relationship with its members. He says it's too early to determine whether the lessons to emerge from the Best review can be equally applied to London Councils, but he acknowledges that the themes are similar.

'Some people think there's a tension between looking after your members and doing lobbying and policy work, and actually I rather share the analysis that says it's your connection to your members that gives you your distinctiveness and authenticity in terms of the lobbying and the campaigning work you do.'

Asked about his favourite parts of the capital, O'Brien nominates Upton Park. 'I have the affliction of being a West Ham fan,' he says.

Despite the club's flagging Premiership fortunes, he recently enjoyed West Ham's triumph at the Emirates stadium, although as the husband of an Arsenal fan he admits he had to remain reasonably muted in his response.

O'Brien is also a keen cinema and theatre-goer but in recent years has found his spare time increasingly constrained by the demands of his six-year-old son, who has yet to declare his own football club allegiance.

The white paper and Lyons report make it an exciting time for local government, O'Brien agrees. But he speaks with the caution that one would expect from someone who has just spent three years in Whitehall as director of local government performance and practice in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

There is promise, he says, in the white paper, and Lyons, too, has a lot of potential for the long-term future of local government. He adds that people shouldn't lose heart because the government immediately blocked some of the suggested avenues to reform.

'For those things that haven't been closed off, we should keep arguing the case and we should use the analysis that Lyons has done to help us make some of that case,' he says. 'I think this is a time of opportunity… There is a belief now among more people than there perhaps has been for a while that there are some clear limits to centralism… There's a much more positive view about what local authorities at the heart of a broader partnership locally can do in terms of securing outcomes on the ground.'

All this comes with the corollary that delivery in the complex world of central-local relations, and against the backdrop of broader political changes, is not going to be easy. It's not surprising to hear such a hard-headed analysis given O'Brien's previous role in Whitehall. But local government runs through his veins. He joined Basildon council as a graduate trainee before moving to Westminster. He then spent a decade in consultancy with KPMG, focusing chiefly on local and central government, before joining the then fledgling Improvement and Development Agency as deputy executive director, where he ran the improvement programme.

After four years came the move to central government – 'fascinating to get the chance to work with ministers' – then secondment to the LGA to work on the Best Commission.

Rejoining the local government family was probably always on the cards, O'Brien admits. 'I'm pleased to get back to it; I've always been close to it. I really genuinely believe in the potential of local democracy to get at issues that I don't think can be addressed from Whitehall or from a central location.'

The job offered two major attractions. First, helping member authorities collaborate among themselves as well as with different partners, and, secondly, London itself. 'If you're going to help a group of councils, then helping them in a city like this is fantastic; it's got a great buzz about it.'

With the Comprehensive Spending Review approaching, a key challenge for O'Brien and his team at London Councils will be ensuring that London gets the right level of resources because, as he reminds us: 'It's not just good for London, it's good for the whole country.'


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